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January 15, 2014

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Passive attack alarms offer little protection for lone workers


SHP Lone worker series, sponsored by People Safe



Roger Vickers, consultant and retired chief superintendent, South Yorkshire Police

Despite what you might see in the media, the UK remains a fairly safe place for people going about their day-to-day activities.

However, people who either work alone, whose work takes them into areas where attacks are more frequent or who sometimes make their way home late at night, may need to exercise particular caution.

There are several possible responses to these situations; the first is to be aware of where you are and what you are doing. Do you really need to be alone in a particular area late at night? Should you walk or take a taxi? Perhaps you could always make sure that you visit some locations with friends and travel home with them. In other words take responsibility for where you go, with whom and if in any doubt give it a miss!

If a major component of your work involves meeting members of the public either alone in an office or visiting a clients home or premises the approach will be somewhat different. Giving it a miss is no longer an option so the approach from both you and your employers has to be aimed at maximising your health and safety. 

The purpose of what we might call a passive personal attack alarm is to surprise and confuse the attacker, by emitting a loud shrill sound giving you a chance to escape and also to draw the immediate attention of anyone in the vicinity that someone is in trouble and needs assistance. 

An attacker will not wish to draw attention to what is happening and will be counting on frightening a victim and gaining their compliance. In circumstances where an attack is actually underway, say in a lonely street late at night then a passive attack alarm may perhaps be the best solution.

However, setting off an alarm, which emits very high decibel sound, perhaps flashes or sprays an assailant with dye is obviously aimed at surprising an attacker and giving a victim time to escape.  Unless someone is nearby, able and willing to intervene the victim would remain alone, will someone call the police?

In my opinion a passive personal attack alarm has the following disadvantages:

  • The most obvious is the inability to actually disable an assailant. Without that capability a determined assailant can continue the attack despite the alarm. Also, an assailant may continue an attack after the alarm in an attempt to silence it, and in so doing injure the victim.
  • Some alarms are easily smothered or muffled if the assailant places his hand over the alarm. So a victim armed only with a personal alarm, really has no control over the situation. The assailant has final control of the situation and its outcome.
  •  Some personal alarms emit sounds that are very similar to car alarms. Some experts feel that, in any given situation, a personal alarm may simply be ignored because people are so used to hearing car alarms go off.

We have to be aware of these disadvantages and take everything into consideration when making a decision about what kind of device to purchase. We have all heard household and car alarms sounding near to where we live and the truth is that the likely assumption will be ‘another false alarm’.  In day-to-day life we sometimes ignore the things around us that seem unimportant at the time, and just go about our business. There is often so much background noise that we have grown accustomed to police, ambulance and fire service sirens or car and burglar alarms and therefore expecting someone to respond to a simple passive personal alarm is an increasing gamble.

The second solution to an ongoing or feared ‘attack’ situation is a monitored alarm, such as a ‘Peoplesafe’ lone worker device.  These come in several guises including being installed on your own mobile phone, a handheld device or the award winning Identicom device that looks and acts as an ID badge but is actually a sophisticated personal attack alarm.  These have considerable advantages over a passive alarm;

  •  All are activated by button press which is not obvious to a potential or actual attacker
  • The device is monitored 24 hours every day of the year by our trained controllers
  • Device activation provides the location of the user to the controller who is able to listen in to and automatically record an ongoing or developing situation. This means that a user does not have to wait until an attack is in progress before activating the device – it can be activated at the point someone’s behaviour begins to cause concern
  • Based on what is heard and if it seems safe to do so the controller will be able to contact the user either directly through the device or by ringing the user’s mobile phone. The user will be asked if they are in a risk or duress situation and reply with a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’
  • If it is clear from the real time audio or if the user responds with a ‘yes’ then the controller will contact the police using a unique reference number (URN) held by our approved alarm receiving centre. Use of the URN guarantees a level 1 immediate police response which is often much quicker than contacting the police using the 999 system. The controller will also be able to describe the situation to the police and, as the listening in continues, update on developments
  • If the user has activated the device due to unease about a particular situation and this does not develop as feared then the response to the controller question about risk or duress will be ‘no’. However, a list of escalation contacts is kept for each user so other assistance say from a colleague may be summoned if a situation does not require an emergency police response.
  •  The devices may be activated for reasons other than some sort of attack. These include illness or other problems, our devices can be fitted with movement and impact sensors which automatically activate the device if the user falls or remains motionless for longer than a set time period 
  • The employer providing the device thereby demonstrates support for a lone worker who may encounter any of the above problems. This meets a responsibility imposed by health and safety or other legislation.

So, a monitored alarm has none of the disadvantages of a passive alarm and device activation will guarantee contact with the user and/or speedy assistance.  The author would not seek to discourage those who may be alone on social occasions late at night in a public place from carrying and using a passive device that may indeed deter an attacker.

However, as a health and safety solution for lone workers it is clear that a monitored alarm provides the most suitable and discreet response to a potential as well an actual risk situation.


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